Cleone Griff (1880-1963)

Born: Cleone de Heveningham Benest; also known as C. Griff; Cleone Benest; Clayton Griff

Sector: Engineering

Tracking women’s careers through their name changes is often a challenge but usually their multiple identities are due to marriage. In the case of Cleone de Hevingham Benest, the reasons for her adopting different identities are not known but they were nothing to do with marriage. Perhaps they were a way of segmenting her life as she moved through different stages but it just adds more interest to what is anyway a fascinating life.

Cleone was born on the 13th June 1880 to George and Edith Maria Benest. The first mystery is the reason for ‘de Heveningham’, given to her as a middle name when she was christened. Her father, George, was born in Oxford and brought up in Jersey, a merchant of both wine and gravel, not the most obvious combination. George and Edith married in St Helier, Jersey in 1877 when Edith was 19 and George was 24. By the time Cleone was born, they had moved to Forest Gate, which is where she was christened.

George doesn’t seem to have stuck around for long. By 1881, Cleone was living with her mother and grand-parents on Jersey and in the late 1880s they all moved to the Isle of Wight. Perhaps her parents divorced but either way, in 1901 her father was living in Oxford with a new wife and two young children.

Growing up Cleonie had plenty of opportunity to indulge her theatrical tendencies, appearing in tableaux vivants and dancing gavottes. She played tennis, badminton, croquet, ping pong and golf and attended balls at the Yacht Club.

She was also an excellent fencer. In 1905 she won a medal at the International Fencing Competition for Ladies and in April 1908 was a finalist in the Ladies’ Fencing Championship held at the Sword Blu. She carried on taking part in fencing competitions and exhibitions up until the outbreak of the First World War.

Cleone, centre back, 1905

In 1904, aged 24, she started to learn to drive and after obtaining her driving certificate from the Royal Automobile Club bought a Lanchester car and started racing. Right from the start wanted to understand the car’s mechanics, which she later said meant she was looked on as ‘an oddity’. In 1908 she was the only woman to sit the City and Guilds of London Motor Engineering exam, achieving a first class pass. She was the third woman to be awarded a certificate for mechanical proficiency by the Royal Automobile Club and could regularly be seen at lectures at the Automobile Engineers, warranting coverage in a range of papers including the London Illustrated News. She undertook practical training, working on workshops, testing rooms and laboratories and studied at technical colleges to gain certificates on the theoretical aspects.

Back on the Isle of Wight Cleone also learned to drive a bus, tutored by Frederick Crinage, the works manager of the Isle of Wight Motor Omnibus Company. He was about five years older than her and married but they formed a relationship of some description that lasted for around thirty years. In 1910, Fred gave evidence on Cleone’s behalf when she was charged with dangerous driving on the Isle of Wight. As a passenger in the car at the time and and on many previous occasions he felt well-qualified to judge her cornering skills to be excellent and the case was dismissed.

The emergence of Miss C. Griff
In 1914 Cleone opened an engineering training school and consulting business at 48 Dover Street in London but despite her well-regarded mechanical skills she decided to adopt a new identity, Miss C Griff, though she continued to fence under her real name. The projects she undertook were wide-ranging. Despite the business headquarters being in London, a lot of her work seemed to be more country-oriented: she advised on the installation of domestic lighting schemes and gas and oil engine plants in country houses, looked over second-hand machinery and cars as well as farm machinery, ploughs and tractors.

Miss Griff, The Vote, 7/12/1923

The outbreak of war meant her venture was short-lived. Fred joined the Air Force and Cleone started work for Vickers as an aircraft engine inspector, travelling up and down the UK buying tools and raw materials. She moved up to Birmingham where she became a member of its Metallurgical Society and when the war finished she joined a large local engineering company, possibly W&T Avery.

In 1919 the Women’s Engineering Society was founded at 46 Dover Street, right next to where Cleone had had her training school. Cleone became a member in 1920 and was active during the 1920s, joining the committee in May 1922. That year she was one of the first woman to write on Professions for Women for the newly-launched Good Housekeeping, with an article on Engineering in the July edition. The characteristics she thought most important were ‘infinite patience, energy, love of hard work and willingness to put up with unpleasant conditions’. The article was full of practical advice, looking at different fields of engineering and laying out the two main routes to getting experience, either some form of apprenticeship supplemented by studying at technical colleges or a university degree followed by work experience. The article was illustrated with a photograph of women in the Atalanta Works in Loughborough. In September she accompanied Caroline Haslett to a meeting of engineering society representatives at the Engineers’ Club to discuss a proposed Association of British Engineering Societies, amalgamating some or all of the existing societies, but nothing came of these plans.

The Stainless and Non-Corrosive Metals Company
Cleone maintained her interest in motoring: in 1920 she was admitted to the Institution of Automobile Engineers and she contributed articles on this topic to the Woman Engineer. However, her attention started to shift toward metals and their properties. In 1921 she became a member of the Iron and Steel Institute and the Cast Iron Research institution and started to contribute papers to several technical magazines. In October 1921 that year she gave a public lecture, organised by the W.E.S. on stainless steel and in 1922 she launched a new venture, the Stainless and Non-Corrosive Metals Company.

Based in Birmingham, at 14 Weaman Street, the company made household goods in stainless steel, including a tin opener which seemed to be very popular, as well as railway fittings, mirrors and lamp reflectors. It was managed by and employed women: Cleone was Chair and Managing Director and her fellow directors were Lady Gabrielle Borthwick and Lady Gertrude Crawford, who was also a director of Borthwick Garages Ltd.

Cleone continued to support the W.E.S., setting up a Birmingham branch and holding meetings at her home, Wildwood, in the Four Oaks area of Sutton Coldfield. When the Electrical Association of Women was launched in 1924, she joined the Birmingham and Midlands Branch. She was a regular contributor to The Woman Engineer and in July 1925 chaired one of the two sessions held on the Industrial Day at the International Conference of Women at Wembley.

By then her company had expanded its range, using a colour process to produce shoe buckles, bag ornaments and other decorative items. It was making spindles for pumps and even small gun parts as well as stainless steel castings for a range of engineering purposes while the ‘Stanpruf’ tin opener continued to be very popular. BBC Birmingham invited Cleone to give a series of talks on Engineering as a career for women as well as on motoring. In 1926 she presented a paper at the fourth annual conference of the W.E.S. in Leeds on ‘Stainless Steel and Its Place in Engineering’, with a wealth of detail on its technical properties and commercial applications.

Back to Benest
Ultimately, however, the Birmingham business was not successful and by 1928 C. Griff had vanished from the pages of The Woman Engineer. Cleone reverted to the name of Benest and she stayed based in the Midlands, moving to Rainsbrook near Rugby. It is here that Fred Crinage joined her in 1931 when he left his job at the Air Ministry. The public line was that he was did odd jobs in exchange for his board and lodgings but their relationship clearly went deeper than this. When Frederick was charged with drink-driving in 1932, Cleone’s gave testimony on his behalf but he still ended up losing his licence for 12 months. In 1935 she was the one in court when the Sheriff tried to seize her furniture to settle some debts. The pair came up with an elaborate story as to how the furniture was actually his and had been renting it to her under a hiring agreement for a shilling a year since April 1928. They were still sharing a house in 1939.

In 1936, when she was 56, Cleone set up one last short-lived venture, a gyrotilling company, making deep ploughing equipment. It at least enabled her to rack up another first, this time as the first woman member of the Institute of British Agricultural Engineers. By 1941 she had moved to Olney in Buckinghamshire where she became an active member of the Women’s Institute in nearby Yardley Hastings.

In the post-war years Cleone re-located to Lymington where she remained involved in fencing, organising displays and attending a party in London to honour Gillian Sheen after she won a gold medal at the 1956 Olympic Games. She moved to Poole before she died in 1963, aged 83.

Cleone Benest / C Griff may have had varying degrees of commercial success with her different business enterprises, but there is no denying her entrepreneurial spirit, her engineering expertise, her courage in claiming her space in male-dominated societies and her commitment to making the path for the women who came after her a bit easier to tread.


Sources include:
Isle of Wight Observer 30/9/1893; Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News 5/8/1905; Illustrated London News 13/6/1908; Isle of Wight Observer 18/7/1908; 30/4/1910; London Evening Standard 28/3/1914; Common Cause 10/9/1915; Gentlewoman 26/2/1916; The Sphere 16/12/1922; Rugby Advertiser 15/4/1932; 7/6/1935; International Women’s Suffrage News 2/5/1941: Manchester Evening News 4/2/1942; New Milton Advertiser & Lymington Times 13/4/1957

The Woman Engineer 1919-1928

“Am I a Lady or an Engineer?” The Origins of the Women’s Engineering Society in Britain, 1918-1940 by Carroll Pursell (1993) in Technology and Culture Vol 34 No.1 pp. 78-97

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